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Dropping knowledge
by David Friedman / February 14, 2007

The 1980s were a golden age for NBA small forwards, headlined by three-time MVP (1984-86) Larry Bird and 1981 MVP Julius Erving. Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy are a few of the talented forwards who had at least some of their prime years during that decade. Another player also deserves to be included in that group: Mark Aguirre.

Aguirre starred at DePaul University from 1979 to 1981. He won the Naismith Award in 1980 and was also named Player of the Year by the AP, the UPI and the USBWA after averaging 26.8 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting .540 from the field. DePaul finished the regular season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country in 1980 and 1981 but on both occasions the Blue Demons were upset in the NCAA Tournament.

DePaul Coach Ray Meyer helped Aguirre to hone his skills.

“I was always physically strong,” Aguirre says. “When I got to him, he turned what I was doing into more of an art, if you want to call it that, where I would totally be in control of my pivot. You would never be in control of me. I could pretty much say that I’m going here and when you do what you do I’m going to have you either this way or that way. It took knowing angles, locking people, understanding my leverage and things like that.”

Aguirre left DePaul after his junior season and the Dallas Mavericks selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1981 draft. Aguirre missed 31 games due to injuries but still averaged 18.7 ppg and ranked seventh in the league in three-point field goal percentage (.352). He clearly established himself as the team’s best player in 1982-83, ranking sixth in the league in scoring (24.4 ppg), a better average than either Bird or Erving posted that year. He also ranked third on the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) and second in assists (4.1 apg).

He earned his first All-Star selection in 1983-84 when he ranked second in the league in scoring (29.5 ppg) and maintained his status as Dallas’ third best rebounder (5.9 rpg) and second best playmaker (4.5 apg). He also shot a career-high .524 from the field. Dallas qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, beating Seattle in the first round before bowing to the powerful Lakers. Aguirre’s scoring averages in December (32.3 ppg) and January (30.5 ppg) that season are the two best monthly averages in Mavericks’ history.

Aguirre posted good numbers in the first half of the 1984-85 season, but was not selected to the All-Star team. After learning of the snub, Aguirre scored a career-high 49 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Erving’s 76ers in a 111-109 Dallas win.

“When I wasn’t selected, that was upsetting and, sure, I wanted to let everybody know that it was a mistake and I had one of the better forwards in the league to do that against,” Aguirre says of his performance against one of the legends of the game. “That happened to be the first game, but from that night on I was going to go after everybody. It helped me; it made me better.”

Aguirre had four more 40-point games in the last 30 games of the season.

The 6-foot-6 foward earned All-Star selections in 1987 and 1988 as the Mavericks emerged as a real force in the Western Conference, winning 55 games in 1987 and 53 games in 1988. Seattle stunned Dallas in the first round in 1987, but the Mavericks made it to the Western Conference Finals in 1988 before being eliminated in seven games by the defending champion Lakers.

In the decisive game of the Mavericks’ first-round series versus Houston, Aguirre put on one of the best offensive displays in postseason history, scoring 27 points in one quarter, which still trails only Sleep Floyd’s NBA record of 29 set the previous year.

“The biggest thing is that it came after being in a slump,” Aguirre explains. “I have to give a lot of credit to a good friend of mine – Brad Davis. We had been pressing, trying to move deep into the playoffs and I knew that I had to perform in order for that to happen. I kind of pressed myself and I wasn’t playing well. Brad took me to play golf. That was my first time ever playing golf. That was the day before we played Houston. He said, ‘You need to relax.’ He just came to my door, knocked on my door, pulled me out of my room. I had no idea what golf was. That relaxed me but when it came I knew it was there. Derek Harper just stopped running plays and he just said, ‘Wherever you are at, just ask me for it.’ That’s what happened.”

“He had the softest shot of anybody I have ever seen,” John MacLeod, Dallas’ coach at that time, recalls. “That is how he got it off over bigger people. He’d get it on the rim and instead of bouncing back out the ball would kind of roll around like it was massaging the rim before it went in. Mark was a tremendous offensive player. He had a complete offensive game. He was a passer, he was a power player inside – he played against bigger people – and then he had the ability to drive the ball to the basket. So, he was a complete player.”

“Having a smaller forward guarding me was never, ever going to work,” Aguirre says simply. “So I played against mostly power forwards, but I could take them down (on the block), too – but I could also take them outside.”

The next season, Dallas had the best record in the Western Conference on December 29, 1988 (17-9) but soon after that the team was rocked by the loss of talented young forward/center Roy Tarpley, who was suspended indefinitely for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. Then the Mavericks took the strange step of trading their best player away, shipping Aguirre to Detroit for Adrian Dantley and a 1991 first-round draft choice. Dantley finished that season with his worst statistics in more than a decade and played in only 55 games in the next two seasons before retiring.

Aguirre was keenly aware that the spotlight was on him after Detroit traded away the popular Dantley.

“We had to win the title,” he states with conviction. “There is no question. Before I came, I let them know that if we don’t win the title this is a bust. I was totally confident in looking at their team (that I could help Detroit win the championship). I knew what Adrian was and he’s a great player, but he wasn’t an absolute post player. He faced up more than he posted up. So with me being on the post, I created more spacing for the Pistons offensively.”

The Pistons went 31-6 after the trade, 29-4 after Aguirre got fully acclimated and became a starter. He proved that he was willing to do whatever it took to win a championship, seamlessly accepting fewer minutes and shot attempts than he was accustomed to getting in Dallas.

“That was the hardest thing that I ever did,” Aguirre recalls. “It was extremely difficult to produce 14 points in like 24 minutes. So I got through it and nobody will know how difficult that was.”

The Pistons won back-to-back titles after acquiring Aguirre and statistics do not completely capture his impact on those teams.

“He was very underrated,” says Scottie Pippen, who squared off against Aguirre in some memorable playoff series. “He was a very dominant player when he was with Dallas. Even when he came over to Detroit and won championships, Mark was still a very bona fide scorer.”

Aguirre often drew double-teams and made a crisp bounce pass out of the post, initiating a sequence in which the ball got swung around before Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson or Bill Laimbeer made an open shot. Aguirre’s post-up and his pass out of the resulting double-team led to the score, but there is no statistical record of his contribution.

“No, there’s no stat for that,” Aguirre says. “Maybe there will be one day.”

In hockey there can be two assists on a play, recognizing the importance of the pass that led to the final pass.

“Oh, I would have had a lot of those,” Aguirre agrees.

MENTORING THE KNICKS' YOUNG POST PLAYERS

Aguirre has been an assistant coach with the New York Knicks since 2003. He teaches the team’s young corps of big men the fundamentals of post play that he first mastered at DePaul.

“If you think about basketball, the closer you can get, the better it is,” Aguirre says of his coaching philosophy. “So I start there. Being able to be close to the basket in a manner that is effective for you takes a few things. It takes cleaning up your footwork first, then understanding leverage and then understanding how to read your defender. Those I take in sequence just like that. The first thing I have to teach them is how to move and get to where you have to go.”

Fortunately for Aguirre and the Knicks, the young players that Isiah Thomas has drafted and acquired are proving to be good pupils.

“The guys I’m teaching now are really learning,” Aguirre notes with approval. “Eddy (Curry), David (Lee) and Channing (Frye) have been really great – I’m really happy with where they are.”

I’ve always felt that one of Curry’s biggest problems has been poor hands. I asked Aguirre if he agreed with that and what could be done about it.

“You are right,” Aguirre said, “but what you have to understand is that when I don’t know where my man is I tend to not be able to keep a constant focus on where the ball is coming from. If I post up and I don’t know where my man is, then I take my eye off the ball and try to find him and then the ball is there. When I looked at film of him, I saw that he bobbles the ball if he doesn’t get locked in on the ball. When he sees the ball coming at him then he’s fine.”

In order to improve Curry’s hands Aguirre literally rebuilt his game from the ground up.

“That’s footwork and that’s leverage and that’s learning how to lock the defender,” Aguirre explains. “See, once I do those things I don’t have to look at you; I know where you are.”

Aguirre teaches his young charges how to seal the defender on their hip.

“Now I can focus on the ball, which makes it easier for me to catch the ball,” he says. “If I’m looking for you and then they throw me the ball, I’m going to miss a few of them. So we had to solve that problem… With a guy who is supposed to have bad hands, you can look at him a lot of times and see that he is out of rhythm with the pass. A guy with soft hands is always in rhythm with the pass. A guy with bad hands is always out of rhythm with the pass, so you can try to create a rhythm for a guy – teach him to get in rhythm with the ball and that will help him a little bit.”

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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